Improving the morning commute with passenger information displays

By Peter Leekha & Javier Lopez

5 min read

When setting out to do something 280 times, one expects the process to become easier and more efficient. What if each time is frustratingly unique?

In 2018, Vancouver’s regional transportation authority TransLink approached us to replace all of the Passenger Information Displays (PIDs) in 33 stations across the Expo and Millennium SkyTrain lines. The existing Platform LEDs were past their design lives, and by modern standards provided only basic information – what train was coming next.

TransLink sought to improve the customer experience by providing three different sets of screens in each station:

  • Train PIDs would display destinations and departure information for the next three trains arriving at the platform.
  • General PIDs would provide passengers with service updates and other customer information.
  • Entrance PIDs would inform passengers of current system status, service interruptions and other general information from outside each station entrance.

By having all three PIDs, customer experience would be enhanced by providing useful and timely information at every stage of the passenger journey, including before they even entered the station. Project Manager Peter Leekha and Electrical Team Lead Javier Lopez led the team of Ausenco engineers who worked to meet the requirements of TransLink’s vision.

The project team was enhanced by team members from TransLink and BCRTC who provided valuable insights and reviews into maintenance and operating requirements.

“Before this project, a customer had no information when they went into a station,” says Javier. “Now they know – without even entering the station – what is happening. Not only information about the next train, but … is the elevator working?”

This deeper understanding of the larger customer experience – not only typical customers, but those with mobility issues and other challenges – was a direct result of the team’s decision to hire a Human Factors specialist to consult on a number of aspects of each screen installation at every station. The range of considerations accounted for at each location was extensive: Where should screens be located? How high should they be? Would they block other signage or CCTV cameras already in the stations? Platform studies even modeled the effects of crowds gathering around the new signs, affecting how far they should be from potential obstacles, like the escalators.

“We prepared mockups to the exact size of the signage, and then went to every station with the Human Factors specialist to confirm their locations,” Peter explained.

After finalizing placements, the real work of designing and overseeing the installations began. This is where the complications of each unique placement became the team’s biggest challenge. Some stations had false ceilings, others did not. There were differences in station power capacities, and the locations of existing power sources and wiring. Different companies were also working on CCTV installations, public address speakers and other station renovations that would affect the availability of power for the screen network. The system had to integrate seamlessly with TransLink’s data center, sending train data to screens throughout the network automatically.

Communication and collaboration were paramount. A significant part of our scope on the project was to keep all contractors involved in the station upgrades well-coordinated, to ensure proper system integration once everything was up and running.

“We considered this a Brownfield project,” Javier says. “We did preliminary thinking about the most practical way to execute the project and designed accordingly. However, sometimes things had to change once we opened the existing infrastructure and found it different from our initial assumptions.”

Every install was different. Some were inside architecturally significant buildings where there could be no visible wiring or conduit. Others required innovative mounting solutions to accommodate false ceilings or false walls already in place.

“You don't just arrive at a station and start putting PIDs anywhere,” Peter stresses. “There are a lot of considerations to take into account.”

At the Waterfront station, for example, a hidden pole had to be installed behind a false wall to support a screen that could not be mounted to the wall itself. A freestanding pole would block passenger movement on the platform, so that was not an option. To allow for future maintenance, a telescoping support allowed the screen to be pulled out from the false wall mount when needed. This complete “life-cycle view” of each installation was an equal part of every planning and design decision across the project.

“You're not just doing the installations and leaving,” Peter insists. “You have to look at how the maintenance people will maintain it and how the operations people will operate it.”

Wildlife and vandalism were also considered in the project design. At a number of locations, opening false ceilings revealed animal nests, carcasses and waste, which required mediation, and often modified designs. And even human behavior could not be counted on. Protective double screens protect displays from vandalism, and mounts were designed to support significantly more weight than just the screens themselves. “What happens if someone just jumps and hangs off it,” Javier asks? “Our design had to support a 200kg person hanging from the PID, without sustaining damage.”

Throughout the project, the safety of passengers and tradespeople was prioritized by only allowing platform work to be completed when they were empty. TransLink requested for work not to be done during revenue hours, limiting site visits and construction to after hours. “The biggest element of this total installation was that all of the work had to be done in a limited window from 2 to 6 am,” Peter points out.

The effect of the screen installations on customer satisfaction has been tremendous, with overall satisfaction with commuter information raising significantly across the surveys. The new hierarchy of information presented on the three separate screen sets means customers have an improved experience even when train service is delayed.

Before the system was installed, Peter says, passengers had no information on trains or service until they were at the platform – even during major interruptions. “You had to go to the stations and look at the mass of people gathered … but then you were stuck there. Now you can access information and learn if there is a delay.”

He smiles. “Now you can go have a coffee if the trains are delayed.!”

For more information, contact Peter Leekha and Javier Lopez.